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   28 Days or 28 Millennia Later, Anthrax Will Still Kill Man and Beast

Its Days are Not Numbered:

28 Days or 28 Millennia Later, Anthrax Will Still Kill Man and Beast

by Chris Holmes, M.D., M.S.P.H.

Anthrax doesn't just go away, doesn't just dissolve in the soil or ground water. It is one of the most durable of all biological agents and can survive for centuries. In 1989, spores were found in the burial pit of an Edinburgh medieval hospital dating to the mid-14th century. This supports the theory that the epidemic known as the Black Death may actually have been caused partially by anthrax.

During World War II, the British tested anthrax as a biological weapon on Gruinard Island, off the northwestern coast of Scotland. Bombarded with spores, the sheep on Gruinard died. So did other livestock on the mainland coast when the wind changed direction. The experiment was stopped, the ground was flooded with formaldehyde, and the topsoil was bulldozed away. Only 50 years after the first test the island was declared free of spores.

British wool workers during the Industrial Revolution became sick and died because of anthrax inhalation. Known as "Woolsorter's Disease," the spores clung to blood products in the fleeces. The "Duckering Process," which uses heated formaldehyde to kill the spores without damaging the wool, is still used in some countries today.

In April 1979, a plume of weaponized anthrax spores spewed forth from a military bioweapons plant in Sverdlovsk, Siberia. 96 people became ill, 77 because of anthrax inhalation. Of those 77, 66 died. Most cases were caused by the initial plume. Secondary aerosolization of spores from dusty streets and rooftops may also have caused sickness.

Louis Pasteur, who developed the first animal anthrax vaccine in 1881, showed that even diseased carcasses buried many feet deep could pose a lasting threat. He found that earthworms had ingested the spores and then carried them to the surface of the ground, where other grazing animals in turn ingested or inhaled them. Rains, floods, and strong winds could further disseminate the spores and cause more disease.

Anthrax spores can be destroyed. The UNSCOM teams which were sent to Iraq used formaldehyde and potassium permangenate to do the job. During the anthrax attacks of 2001, the Hart Senate office building was twice decontaminated with chlorine dioxide liquid and gas. Mail sent to government offices continues to be irradiated—the most effective method—before delivery. Many media companies still autoclave (steam under pressure) incoming mail.

But in order to kill the spores, they must first be found. Saddam Hussein admitted in 1992 that he had produced 8,500 liters of anthrax. While UNSCOM destroyed some of it, much more remains unaccounted for. If these stores ever get into soil, water sources, or become airborne, they could cause misery and death for years to come.

Dr. Holmes is the author of Spores, Plagues, and History: The Story of Anthrax.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on August 15, 2003.
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